Submission to the Queensland Juvenile Justice Act 1992 Review
24 Sep 07
As the conditions in society change a review of its institutions is warranted. The juvenile justice system is no exception. This submission makes use of the findings research into how the mind works has produced. In this case the focus is on the tendency of cognitive clusters to form specific domains, often against what can be termed the mainstream. Youth crime is largely a reflection of the emergence of disparate domains that have settled into significant elements, and now at odds with the rest. The solution consists in repositioning the members of such groups in a for the society meaningful manner. That initiative draws on already established experience with socially conforming environments such as the armed forces and civilian groups, all of which have been very successful in exerting their influence over their members. As far as dealing with antisocial youth is concerned, there are already programs which aim to educate the participants towards a sense of responsibility, self-confidence, and the awareness of others. Whether sailing on a ship or spending some time in the wilderness, they all can point to significant success, most poignantly recognised by the young people themselves. The suggestion is made therefore to establish a range of like options as part of the judicial process, so that young offenders can be removed from their own dysfunctional culture and become exposed to an ambience that positions them for life. Indeed, the regular availability of this kind of education would be a bonus for the young in any case and so ultimately for society.
Any society that deals with its events on a continual basis recognises the need to address its justice system. In a very real sense its legal framework provides the behavioural scaffolding for its affairs, the multifaceted human activity systems enabled through the society's overall potential.
One major element of that framework constitutes the juridical means for ensuring that the following generations remain within the context of its culture. Juvenile justice systems therefore cannot fail to remain under focus, especially when the societal contingencies are subject to change as time goes on. Regardless of any political perspectives the present review of the Queensland Juvenile Justice Act can be seen as a result of a constantly changing, responding, and ultimately self-identifying society. Since the brief for submissions to the review includes an invitation to provide material from research, I would like to take this opportunity and introduce the relevant findings from an investigation into how the mind works.
Originally centred on the field of artificial intelligence, the resultant model outlines the patterns found in cognitive behaviour at any scale. That is to say, these dynamics can be identified among neurons, among the thought structures of an individual, as well as in concepts held by society at large or indeed a culture. Furthermore, the functions have been replicated in a computer model, a true prototype of an artificial mind.
This submission focuses on one particular aspect of cognitive dynamics, that is the propensity of functional elements to form affinitive relationships with each other, leading to the emergence of clusters and domains of certain characteristics. Since true to the model's nature that definition is scalable, the conceptualisation can equally be applied to ideas and what has been termed cultural memes at the higher end of the scale.
For more detail on the model and its applicability see the website above. The page first-time visitors is a guide to what can be found where. Papers, articles, and references to events from around the world confirming the model are available on the site.
2. Domains in society
Throughout the ages the members of a society have surmised about its inherent status. Considerations were given to its customs, their validity and adherence to them within the context of its checks and balances.
While the need to address such characteristics had been recognised at all times, the response to any findings were usually subject to the filters a culture imposed.
The relationship between existing and emerging domains can already be observed at the neuronal level. There the protein formations existing within neurons allow information to be transmitted under their own auspices, and the process replicates itself across the entire network. Therefore the representative value of data in any given group reflects the latter's affinity with its neighbours.
Change the chemical composition along the way and the output, that is the re-representative value of the current cluster, will have been affected. For that reason the ingestion of certain substances alters the perceptive potential of its host, giving rise to the term 'mind-altering drugs'.
A similar dependence holds across the other levels of scale. Cultural norms influence the manner in which incoming information is processed, and the feedback loop connecting individuals within a society to its overall character and back again to the people ensures a certain homogeneity.
For example, Lindner describes the concept of 'honour' in the context of humiliation . Different societies supply different markers for what results in trauma under varying conditions, making a clear definition in the service of human rights rather difficult.
One of the most pressing issues of our times is the appearance of terrorism around the globe. The West, with its own perspectives and hence nomenclature, tends to press its manifestations into the service of its own needs. Unfortunately this also leads to misinterpretations of the actions of others. As has been amply demonstrated in the Iraq war, the confluence of tribal and sectarian associations, subsumed under the auspices of contemporary pressures, has led to often disastrous results on the ground. Reports such as those produced by the Iraq Study Group have shown how disparate the expectations between the US and the locals can be .
Arguably more poignant have been the findings of a survey of British Muslims about their response to terrorist attacks on the West. "Living apart together - British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism", issued by the London think tank Policy Exchange, examined the attitudes of British residents who happen to be adherents to Islam . Despite their surrounding culture or, given the nature of the underlying dynamics, because of it, the survey found a marked difference between Western values and those of the target group.
The above examples demonstrate two features of dynamic systems. Firstly, specific clusters featuring a particular set of characteristics have the tendency to maintain their nature so that a culture becomes identifiable. Secondly, should a cluster of different characteristics emerge, its own volume and inertia is capable of positioning itself alongside its host such that the values and expectations of the former become largely meaningless in relation to the latter.
A major element of this process, if not its most important one, is identity. A cognitive domain in its own right, it determines the manner in which outside information becomes interpreted and subsumed under its own framework.
Mostly forgotten in the current climate of individualism, the identity domain asserts its importance in terms of how a person relates to their group in a for them meaningful way. The interpretation of 'meaningful' rests with the domain's nature, its situatedness within the group, and drives the members' acts of ascertaining themselves throughout their walks of life in a profound manner. Hence demographics can be analysed by referring to their inherent characteristics as a result of identity domains producing their effects. Their reach remains a function of their affinity with the relevant neighbours.
As such identity can be seen as a denominator, exerting its influence under varying conditions. How significant that influence can be has been shown in a study of the social relationships underpinning the occurrence of obesity. It found that social factors outweigh other influences. A person's chances of becoming obese increased through their connectedness with friends, siblings, and spouses. So much so that greater social distance decreased the likelihood of the condition, whereas an increase in geographic distance did not .
The propensity of cognitive domains to maintain their own characteristics, despite the potentially ameliorating influence of their surrounds, puts the existence of the youth domain in a very specific light. The law, with its own framework of checks and balances, needs to address those features for it to become productive.
3. Youth and the legal system
A perusal of the Issues Paper 2007 by the Queensland Government shows that the aspect of social dysfunction has given rise to considerations that are cognisant of the points raised above to a certain extent .
Mentioned are attempts at repositioning the situatedness of young offenders by providing the means to address particular problems before matters are presented to a court (ie, dealing with drug dependency, the creation of a forum specific to the case at hand, introducing a medical perspective, interaction along the lines of gender, etc).
However, as effective as those measures may be within the context of the law itself, they leave the need for a priori initiatives largely unaddressed.
From the perspective of an offender the mechanisms available in the judicial system do not necessarily constitute a remedy. At best they are perceived as a possible opportunity to be weighed against the existing familiar, at worst they represent a confirmation of that person's situatedness within their own culture. In fact, a prison sentence may well be a 'badge of honour'.
A solution to the problem of a pre-existing culture is to be found by considering the dynamics of domain-building within a wider context.
Take new army recruits, a collection of individuals coming from all types of backgrounds, and now put together under a completely different system. The demands of that system, pressed home by the institutional framework and aided by its interface in the form of instructors, ensure that within as little as seven days a diverse bunch of people are, quite literally, marching to the same tune.
Drawing from my own experience in Austria and Australia the above may be seen as anecdotal, but the considerable history behind European armed forces allowed the various time spans applied to the training phases of recruits to settle themselves into proven segments. Therefore, under those circumstances a week is indeed all it takes to transform various mindsets in a meaningful way. From then onwards the actual training can take over.
More relevant to the current topic are my experiences while travelling on a yacht. Many like-minded individuals with their families embarked on such ventures, and often their children had been rather ill-equipped in terms of their attitudes.
An environment in which discipline, awareness of others, and the potential dangers posed by an indifferent nature are inherent elements, makes for challenges a youngster may not have been exposed to while living in suburban Menus.
To take one example, a ten-year-old may be ready to jump into a dinghy, start the outboard and drive off without a second thought of any possible complications.
At that point a variety of problems arise. The knot tying the dinghy to the vessel may not open; jumping into the dinghy may push it all over the place; the engine does not start; and if it does its power makes the youngster loose control.
All these pose no real danger as such, but they demonstrate to the young mind in no uncertain terms that there are things that require diligence, skill, and forbearance. Although not expressed in those terms to that mind the realisation overall will make itself felt.
On the other hand, give the child the opportunity to acquire those skills and here is a situation that from now on can be handled. Then, whenever guests need to be taken ashore, there is someone who can do the job. That kid walks tall, and what's more, the dinghy is in safe hands.
Naturally, similar relationships between old and new mindsets hold, whether it concerns the tying of knots, keeping your berth clean, or in countless situations on land where a sense of responsibility mixed with a measure of self-confidence is needed.
It is not without reason that others have seen the value of like environments in order to educate the young.
For example, the Tall Ships Youth Trust in Britain offers young people between the ages of 16 and 25 the opportunity to learn skills that go quite beyond the raising of sails . In Australia in far-north Queensland the tall ship Young Endeavour is available to people aged between 16 and 23 . The organisation Redcliff Ascent with its Troubled Teen Wilderness Therapy Program gives young people aged 13 to 25 in the US opportunities only a challenging context can provide.
An approach differing in detail but very similar in principle had been taken by the composer José Antonio Abreu in Venezuela . Through music children were rescued from the slums and the gangs, and as the recent report notes, some have made it to the world stage and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra is the result. The introduction of a milieu removed from the familiar surrounds and based on intellectual rewards changed the culture in the individual.
The legal framework as represented by the Queensland Juvenile Justice Act follows its own prerequisites as determined under the law. Hence the relevant paragraphs are formulated in accordance with its contingencies, but not further . As they stand, the means to evoke anticipatory measures are virtually absent.
It could be argued that even if the law includes the option of sending young offenders on boats or to bush camps, the benefits of such experiences would make them a useful form of education in any case. The exposure to a challenging environment should also be viewed from the perspective of their targets. A teenager does not necessarily need a voyage on a 'Tall Ship', indeed there is no real need for a 'voyage' either. A much smaller vessel, sailed up and down the coast, provides a setting with all the relevant ingredients included.
It needs to be remembered that the context is relevant to the mind in situ. For a 13-year-old 50nm are just as adventurous as travelling around the world is for a Captain Cook.
Given the considerable expenditure required to implement the juridical options as currently available under the existing system, a law that also includes identifying social dysfunction in advance and provides the means of addressing them, would be more efficient in financial terms as well.
Although I do not possess the statistical evidence to prove my case, the measures taken by just about any armed forces and private organisations under essentially similar circumstances should tell us something.
4. Review questions
Following are the questions supplied in the Issues Paper and the answers as they relate to the above.
4.1. Sentencing and diversionary options - range
The current range applies to the legal framework as it stands. Anticipatory measures are not included, but would be very helpful for the reasons outlined.
4.2. Sentencing and diversionary options - improvements
If the act of sentencing occurs after the event (as it must), the option of character education has become more urgent. To make the option available would in itself be an improvement, but preemptive measures would be of an even greater advantage.
4.3. Accountability options - parental responsibility
Usually dysfunctional behaviour can be traced to the parents (although there are exceptions). If a full range of sentencing options are available, parents should be held accountable to follow them through, even if this means no more than acknowledging the usefulness of that option (indeed, there are parents who could do with a stint in a camp).
4.4. Accountability options - comments
In the current climate of the matron state the appreciation of responsibility overall has become more difficult. In tandem with the implementation of these suggestions would be a publicity campaign targeting the usefulness of confidence building and social integratedness. Under the circumstances this may be more difficult than it sounds.
Public exposure can be self-defeating if a sub-culture transforms it into an advantage (see my comments on 'badge of honour' in section 3). An additional bonus from alternative education options would be the emergence of a mitigating culture they facilitate-a counter balance to the offenders' own.
4.6. Naming - comments
There is no doubt about the positive effects a ship or a camp will have. The question is what happens next. Alongside the immediate experience there needs to be the opportunity to remain connected. In other words, once a group has been established, its members maintain the affiliation and could well feed back to newcomers. It might be the family they never had. Long-lasting organisations do cultivate their links (just consider the Scouts). In such a case Naming (as in, making the new affiliation known) would actually cement one's adherence to the new group.
4.7. Other accountability options
When creating or modifying a legal framework the temptation exists to include a multitude of detail, the implementation of which not only requires resources but leads to a priori judgments. Human affairs in general however are largely self-regulating. A culture that includes a sense of responsibility and self-confidence will take care of itself. In the end the courts can do no more than guide.
4.9. Reducing remand levels
A legal system that directs young offenders towards an environment that speaks to that person rather than to the system should reduce the need for remand time (although there are circumstances where the risk would be too great). Teaching discipline on the heaving deck of a ship would be a better alternative to having counselling classes in a prison.
4.10. Reducing remand levels - comments
I am not familiar with the current political clout of the counselling industry.
4.11. Options for Indigenous young people
Given Australia's history sending young indigenous people to the Young Endeavour may not be the best choice. Nevertheless, in principle the suggested alternative holds. Indigenous elders would be the best persons to decide on the actual details. On the other hand, because of the educational function the outcome would be specific to that culture. That is to say, indigenous auspices will not necessarily prepare the participant for a life in wider society. Only consultation can strike a worthwhile balance.
4.12. Transition into the community
Once the option of character education exists, its inherent elements apply to the wider community. The transition therefore is less problematic compared to more institution-specific environments. How successful the move turns out to be would ultimately depend on the criteria mentioned under section 4.6.
4.13. Transition into the community - comments
The creation of wider and wider human networks stemming from the initial exposure may seem to invite considerable costs. Although some costs would be ongoing, a not insignificant part would be borne by the members themselves. The social benefits - long surpassing the issue represented by the initial trigger - would sustain the commitment. Clubs do it all the time.
4.14. Other issues
Obviously, areas such as mental health and serious drug dependency would need to be addressed in line with professional expertise. Most points raised on page 5 of the Issues Paper should be seen in that context. As far as drug testing per se is concerned, the inculcation of social values would address the issue from the inside out. Similarly, social values are not gender-specific, and exposure to challenging situations educate not only young people for themselves but also in relation to each other.
In broad terms the mind model reiterates what societies have exercised throughout the ages. The advantage of the model consists in explicitly describing the dynamics of human activity systems in a formal, culturally neutral manner.
It is no coincidence that well-positioned societies reserve one their highest appreciation for those who offer their skill and wisdom to the education of the young. In the continuum of life such a service is not only a duty but an honour.
There is also a reason why schooling is largely removed from contemporary politics. At this stage in a person's life the inculcation of values needs to focus on what is generally applicable-fashion comes later.
Although today the perception of multiculturalism has taken hold to a considerable degree, the word itself is rather a misnomer. In technical terms anything beyond the tribe is already multicultural. As such it represents nothing new.
The onus lies with the leaders to enable their nation's youth to acquire a mindset that is based on participation, rather than mere co-existence. There are costs, but they are part of life.
In the end education means no more, and certainly no less, than saying to our young, "Come, you are one of us."
1. Lindner, E.G., Humiliation - Trauma That Has Been Overlooked: An Analysis Based on Fieldwork in Germany, Rwanda/Burundi, and Somalia, 2001, http://www.fsu.edu/~trauma/v7/Humiliation.pdf.
2. Iraq Study Group Report, 2006, http://www.usip.org.
3. M. Mirza, A. Senthilkumaran, Z. Ja'far, Living apart together - British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism, Policy Exchange, 2006, http://www.policyexchange.org.uk.
4. N.A. Christakis, J.H. Fowler, The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years, New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 357:370-379, Number 4, July 26, 2007, Number 4.
5. Issues Paper 2007, Queensland Government, Department of Communities, 2007.
6. Tall Ships Limited, 2007, http://www.tallships.org/.
7. Young Endeavour, 2007, http://www.cook.qld.gov.au/news/2007/Young_Endeavour2007.shtml.
8. The Musical Miracle of Caracas - From the Slums to the Concert Hall, Deutsche Welle DW-TV, 2007, http://www.dw-world.de/dw/episode/0,2144,2515549,00.html.
9. Queensland Juvenile Justice Act 1992, Queensland Government, 2007.